Ahead of today’s Champions League quarterfinal first leg fixture between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, it is worth reviewing the Atleti’s impressive weekend win over Real Betis. The match showed a more creative side to Diego Simeone that complicates the picture of him as being a defense-first counter attacking manager cut from the same cloth as Jose Mourinho.
How Atletico Set Up
From the start of the match, it was clear that this was not going to be a typical narrow 4-4-2 from Atletico. Simeone started with a midfield four of Augusto Fernandez, Gabi, Saul, and Koke, but rather than playing a flat four with Gabi and Augusto in the center flanked by Saul and Koke, he instead favored a midfield diamond. Augusto sat at the base, Gabi played down the right side of the diamond, Saul on the left, with Koke at the tip just behind (and sometimes even between) Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann. You can see the shape almost immediately after kick-off:
In the far left corner just below the circle you can see Augusto. Just ahead of him on either side are Saul (top) and Gabi (bottom). Then you have the attacking three with Koke in the middle and Griezmann (top) and Torres (bottom) lurking nearby.
This is the basic shape that Atletico played with for most of the match.
Why would Simeone use this formation?
In one sense, this seems an odd move. Why deviate from their base 4-4-2, particularly in the week of a major European tie with Barcelona? But there are many good reasons for the change:
- First, this was a home tie against a bottom half opponent who was probably going to play for a draw. Working in a flat 4-4-2 against such an opponent wouldn’t be wise.
- Second, the diamond shape creates multiple passing levels in the formation as the midfielders are on three different levels in the field, rather than being in a flat line. This makes it easier to retain possession and easier to pull the opposition out of position as they chase the ball. When you factor in that the fullbacks also typically push up the field, that creates further passing options.
- Third, the diamond is one of the most versatile formations in world football. Without too much difficulty it can shift into a more conventional flat 4-4-2 with the destroyer staying deep and the number 10 dropping off to sit between the two wide men in the diamond. It’s not quite a flat 4-4-2, but it’s a 4-1-3-2 that functionally works much like a flat 4-4-2. It can also easily morph into a 4-3-3 as the tip of the diamond pushes forward and the strikers flare out wide. This also can create defensive difficulties for the opposition as players start popping up in unexpected positions.
- Fourth, a position with many different levels in it is also more capable of pressing quickly as the players are spread out over more of the field and are likely to be in better position to spring quick pressing traps which can lead to transition plays and scoring chances.
We saw all of these things in play for Atletico in the win against Betis.
First, we saw a great deal of fluidity in the attacking three.
Ostensibly, Koke was played as a central attacking midfield behind Torres (a right-sided striker) and Griezmann (a left-sided striker). But in practice it was much more complex than that. Koke can play seemingly anywhere on the field, Griezmann was a winger before coming to Atletico, and Torres still has enough pace and intelligence to pop up in unexpected places. So, for example, in one passage of play Griezmann pressed the ball all the way to the keeper, resulting in a poor ball from the goalie that led to a throw in for Atletico on the right flank. Torres took the throw and got the ball in to Griezmann, who was suddenly playing as a lone center forward with Torres out on the right wing and Koke in behind him. Betis closed Griezmann down quickly, but this was an example of how the attacking three (and particularly Griezmann and Torres) were able to play off each other and move into space vacated by the other.
Something similar happened on the opener for Atletico. Torres is a right sided forward, but he scores the opener by making a run that is nearly in the left channel (and would be if Torres had tried to come in front of the defender rather than running in behind him).
The reason is simple: The play had been shifted heavily toward that side of the field and the entire Atletico shape shifted with it. Thus Griezmann pushes out wider, almost like a left wing, and Torres pushes further to the left, where he makes his run:
Also note that Koke has dropped fairly deep to receive the ball and make this pass. (Finally, that’s a hell of a finish from Torres.)
This fluidity is something we saw repeatedly throughout the match.
Second, the fanatical pressing that we typically see only in deeper positions was being used much further up the pitch.
Several interesting things happen in the passage of play shown below:
First, note that the player making the aggressive forward run at the start of the sequence is Augusto, who is theoretically the deepest midfielder in the diamond. Second, note how quickly the Atleti try to regain possession once it is lost. There are four Rojiblanco players in the frame and all of them move toward the ball once possession is lost. Ultimately it is Koke who wins the ball and, the moment he does, Saul is already shifting his body forward to make a run down the flank, which Koke picks out.
In this case, Saul’s cross was hacked clear by the defense, but the principle here is what’s important. This is not an Atletico looking to sit back and counter; they were chasing and attacking Betis deep into their own third throughout this game and the sort of lightning quick attacks that we often think of as counter attacks when they start from deeper positions look, instead, a lot like the sort of chances that Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino teams typically create.
In a soon-to-be published interview at Just Football with Robbie Dunne, editor of Into the Calderon, I asked him about Simeone’s tactical flexibility. Dunne told me that Simeone is far more versatile than most people realize and that his Atletico is capable of playing some high-quality, aggressive, attack-minded football. On the evidence of this weekend’s match with Betis, he’s exactly right. Now the only question is what we will see from Simeone’s men later today as they face Barcelona at the Camp Nou—a return to the flat 4-4-2, low block, and counter attacking? Or perhaps a more attack-minded diamond with a higher pressing approach? We’ll find out later today.